Are You Really Happy?

August 26, 2010


With the economy stalled and a lot of people struggling to find a job, keep the one they have, or just make sense of it all, this represents a good time for all of us to take a look inside our head and hearts to make sure we have everything screwed down tight and in the right balance.

I always thought that working hard and establishing a career was a means to an end in that in the end the only thing that matters is friends and family and being happy. Now I can tell you that this was not the way it was for me in the early years. Well you see it was about advancement, opportunity, promotions, and more money. With that I was certain would come happiness. Happiness as measured by a new car, house, or a special vacation. So with that new shiny car came a short burst of what I (and many others) confused as happiness. Funny though the happiness didn’t last very long.  I wonder why…

Challenging times can do 2 things. First it can get some of us to realize the internal puts and takes around values and what makes us happy for the first time and for others to be reminded again of its importance.  As a lot of people are now focused on holding things together in their lives we should all be reminded that in the end the things that really matter don’t cost anything to buy or require a corner office to achieve.

So what does it mean to be happy? It really has nothing to do with the actual job you have,house you live in, your income, or the car you drive. There are plenty of less than fortunate people (or so we define them) that appear happy and plenty of so called “well off” that aren’t. Hard to make sense of it huh?

Several years ago while living in Dallas my wife and I took a motorcycle trip to the Bayou. I was always intrigued with that part of the country, its people, and history. Plus I never met anyone from the Bayou. The ride there was pleasant although it was pretty hot and really humid. We stayed at a cabin on one of the waterways they refer to as a Teche. It was awesome. The food seemed interesting and the people were really nice though it was hard to sometimes understand them. We went to a local Walmart to get some shorts since it was pretty hot out and ran into a local who wanted to know if we were going to the “Bayou Bash” the following day. Sounded like fun, we got directions, and headed out after breakfast the next day.

As we were heading out to the bash I started to notice that most of the cars seemed really old and beat up, there were a lot of small homes most in need of repair and a number of them with tires on the roof to I guess keep the roof on during bad weather.While the scenery was nice I started to feel sorry for the Bayou, its people,and for what they must be going through. Clearly they can’t be happy…

After riding around for what seemed to be at least an hour we ended up at this great party. Lots of music, food, dancing, and laughing. I must have missed something on my calendar.Must have been some national holiday I forgot about or maybe a local holiday. We were immediately greeted by some locals offering us some cold beer and food. I asked one of the locals what the occasion was and he looked at me without a smile and said “It’s Saturday”. Saturday, oh yeah “We do this every Saturday. Well the parking lot looked like a junkyard, the beer was cold, and the music while strange (Zydeco to be exact – wonderful music – listen if you get the chance) actually was cool so here we are at the Bayou Bash having a blast. After a little time and a couple of beers I was feeling pretty comfortable talking to people and walking around. We met a couple that took us out on an old boat to feed the alligators marshmallows.  I asked the woman “Why do you feed the alligators marshmallows?” She said “they like the taste of them plus they float so you can see them eat. That’s the fun part”.

I saw this one older man sitting down by himself and figured I would talk to him and cheer him up. I forget his name but believe me he was memorable. He lived down the road a bit and had lived there his whole life. “3rd generation” and apparently proud of it. He had retired about 10 years ago but in the same breath told me that “none of us really retire around here”. I assumed the reason people don’t retire in the Bayou is that they can’t afford to.  He informed me it wasn’t the money that there was no reason to retire. Too much fun working and helping people out.  Lust last week one of his neighbors house needed a new roof and before you knew it 20 other neighbors were working on getting it done. By day’s end a new roof  for the cost of the material. See this old man was pretty well set as he lived with his kids, was expected to just as his parents lived with him. This was as he put it “a privilege yet expected” and since there wasn’t a lot of money around that seemed to make a lot of sense. He asked me what I did. 30 minutes or so later after I told him about my career at IBM, the many relocations, work in Phoenix, and a recent move to Dallas with Nortel anticipating the move to Boston and then NY, all of course with the achievements in status and money that went along with it all. As I wanted to be sensitive not to rub it in I chose my words carefully. After I completed my career overview waiting to hear his words of astonishment and jealousy he told me that he was sorry I had to move so much, uproot my family, and be away from my parents. He wanted to know “what the hell was I looking for that was that good to have me move around so much”.  He then spent the next 15 minutes setting me straight about “life values” and told me that I still had time to “make things right”. I went from feeling sorry for an area of the country, a group of people, a community, an old man,  to feeling sorry for myself.

There was a study done recently that identified Denmark as the happiest country in the world. Denmark is a Nordic welfare state with most of its services free to the citizens.Expect to pay 72% of your money to the government on the highest income tax bracket. According to Wikipedia Denmark has the world’s highest taxes! When buying a car in Denmark one has to pay 25% VAT to the import price of the vehicle and then a 180% registration tax on top. That means when a car sells for $20 000, you have to pay an additional $45 000 as taxes for the government(total of $65 000). That’s why people in Denmark ride bikes or use one of the best public transport systems in the world. Another study suggests there is a correlation between money and happiness, IT’S TRUE – well let’s just say the correlation is exactly opposite of what most would thing. The wealthiest zip codes in the US actually have the least happy people living in them.

In a study that looked at the happiness of nearly 5000individuals over a period of twenty years, researchers found that when an individual becomes happy, the network effect can be measured up to three degrees. One person’s happiness triggers a chain reaction that benefits not only their friends, but their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. The effect lasts for up to one year.

The flip side, interestingly, is not the case: Sadness does not spread through social networks as robustly as happiness. Happiness appears to love company more so than misery.

“We’ve found that your emotional state may depend on the emotional experiences of people you don’t even know, who are two to three degrees removed from you,” says Harvard Medical School professor Nicholas Christakis, who, along with James Fowler from the University of California, San Diego co-authored this study. “And the effect isn’t just fleeting.”

In fact, the study noted, data from the Department of Labor show that the more money people have, the less likely they are to spend time doing certain kinds of enjoyable things that make them happy. High-income individuals are often focused on goals, which can bring satisfaction. But working toward achievements is different from experiencing things that are enjoyable in themselves, such as close relationships and relaxing leisure activities.

Various studies have shown that people are enormously reluctant to accept a pay cut, even if that would give them more freedom, less supervision or a shorter commute — all things that are tangibly associated with moment-to-moment happiness. The emphasis on salary is identical to the lottery ticket winner’s mistake in thinking that money changes everything.

From another study “One of the mistakes people make is they focus on the salary and not the non-salary aspects of work.” “People do not put enough weight on the quality of work. That is why work looks like, for most people, the worst moments of the day.”

Maybe the current economic situation is actually an opportunity. An opportunity that will nudge people to realign their personal values and importance of happiness taking it to a new possibility in life.  An opportunity to rightsize personal spending, get rid of a few things that you might have never enjoyed,find a better balance between work and life and get things “right”. Give a little back and take a little less.

One definition of happiness is defined as the gap between what one’s value and beliefs are and where one is at against those values and beliefs. The smaller the gap and, presumably so, the more happy you are. I would also challenge that what makes up the value and beliefs should be looked at closely. They really can’t be money or materials things but must be the things that define our lives and who we are – most notably friends, family,and giving.

Here’s to your happiness!

About Frank Picarello

Frank is a well-respected leader in providing technology services to small and medium-sized businesses. He is currently COO for TeamLogic IT, Chairperson for CompTIA's Small Business Owner's Group, and a member of CompTIA's Unified Communication Committee.

View all posts by Frank Picarello

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